It had been a silly, stupid thing, really.
They'd taken to drinking together, the two least likely to get along, and yet somehow every night they found themselves side by side, drinks in hand.
But everyone else had sneered at him, some had even spit as he walked by holding his head high. Of all people, the Qunari spy had taken a seat beside him, had asked if he was bothering him if he took the stool that always remained empty.
Until, that is, it became his.
For a time they argued, though it was playful. Just the standard, traditional disagreements between two of their kind. The large merc was open about his role in the Qun, did nothing to hide the fact that he had been sent to spy on the Inquisition. It was an odd thing, both begging his listener to trust and to be on guard at the same time.
And so for a time, the Vint did both.
On nights when he drank too much, he always found himself back in his quarters, tucked into his bed, a cup of water waiting on his bedside table for him in the morning. He never asked, never spoke of the small kindness shown to him by the Qunari who was little more than a stranger to him.
Until, that is, one day he was a stranger no longer.
They fought side by side, following the Inquisitor into battle without question, no matter their initial reservations about one another. More times than he could count he shielded the large mercenary with his barrier, and even more frequently the warrior deflected a blow with his large sword that had been meant for the mage, even at risk to himself.
The words began to blur, began to erase the others they had previously called one another. Their time spent side by side in the evenings, mugs in hand, turned from snark and tired arguments to reminiscences, shared memories of distant homelands and missed cultures. And soon the need for drink lessened until he remembered walking back to his room, escorted by the large merc as if he expected some shadowy assassin to charge down the halls of Skyhold in sudden, surprise attack.
Gradually they began to linger longer each night, continuing their discussions outside of his room, in no hurry to part ways no matter how late the hour. They told jokes, laughed together, finding a surprising kinship in one another once they realized just how much common ground they actually shared, how outcast and out of place they both felt around other people.
It was the Iron Bull who stepped forward first, endearingly hesitant as he leaned closer. “Is this - all right?” he asked softly, his one eye searching for the answer as he tried to give a chance for the other man to refuse.
In response Dorian had simply closed the distance between them as encouragement, silently answering the whispered question.
The taste of strong ale had greeted his tongue, the feeling of hot, scarred skin beneath his wandering fingers only making him crave more to touch, to feel. The stone had been cold and hard as he was pressed back to it, and he had enjoyed the contrast to the warm, eager flesh against his front.
Tender, nearly desperate passion, so much more than he had expected from the normally crass, cynical merc. It was as if the Qunari sensed the need deep inside him for assurances and gentle acceptance, and tried to provide both for him. Large, calloused, battle-worn hands almost cradled him as they moved against one another in his small bed. Caresses moved practiced and sure across his naked skin, drawing sighs and groans from his throat. His fingers dug into the toughened, marred flesh of the Qunari’s back as he tried to return the keen fervor that was almost devouring him, leaving him breathless.
And yet at every pause he was met with the deep voice of the other man, gravelly in his need, “Is this all right?”
The same way his brazen flaunting of his role in the Qun begged for trust, the soft question offered it, each time assuring him that at any moment he could say no. But he never felt the desire to deny, instead he only wanted more, hushed moans and whispers conveying his growing need. He wasn't left unsatisfied, yet the satisfaction led only to more longing, more yearning, the haze of lust transforming into a hope for something greater.
That was something he could not be allowed, something he had never been able to indulge. Now, with a Qunari spy, was certainly not the time to dream of more. It was what it had always been, the only thing it could ever be, and he was left empty and aching just as he always had been before.
In the morning he awoke alone, though he wasn't certain he had expected anything else - just a lingering pang in his heart, like always.
It had been a silly, stupid thing, really - thinking he could possibly hope for more this time.
The usual din and bustle of the courtyard in Skyhold greeted Dorian as he made his way to seek out breakfast at the tavern. His mood could be described as “testy,” he knew he had to be scowling as he made his way down the steps leading to the Keep. Better sleep than he had had for months since coming South, sweeter dreams in the Fade, yet waking alone had soured any contentment he may have initially felt upon opening his eyes.
As he turned in the direction of the tavern he saw across the courtyard - Bull and Krem sparring, the Tevinter man bashing his shield against Bull’s in an attempt to stagger or disarm him. For a moment Dorian faltered in his steps, his heart leaping into his throat as his stomach felt like it plummeted in the opposite direction.
When he managed to overcome his brief hesitation he cleared his throat and continued across the courtyard as if he hadn’t seen the pair.
Casual dalliance - that was all, he reminded himself.
The familiar voice pulled him out of his careful focus of simply trying to reach the tavern, and he glanced up to see the Inquisitor approaching with a bright smile on their face.
“How are you?” they greeted when they fell into step beside him. “You seem to be scowling, more news from your father? Or come across something unsavory in your research in the library?”
“Neither,” Dorian grumbled. “Simply in search of something to eat, Inquisitor.”
“Ah good, then I’ll have company while I do the same,” they told him with a jovial laugh.
He bit his tongue, resisted telling the Herald of Andraste that he would prefer to be alone with his thoughts. They had been nothing but welcoming and accepting of him since they had met him in that Chantry in Redcliffe. Indeed, they had stood beside him when he confronted his father in the tavern in that same village, had insisted that they leave when it became clear Dorian was distressed.
Surely if anyone could pull him out of this lugubrious mood it would be the Inquisitor, either with talk of their upcoming plans or quiet discussion of the research he was conducting into Corypheus.
When they had placed their request for breakfast with the barkeep they took their seats at a table and began to discuss the latest miniscule discovery he had made in the library. It was just enough of a distraction until they fell silent, and Dorian found himself staring absently at the bar stool he normally occupied, the one beside it that had so naturally become the Bull’s.
“Are you certain you are all right, Dorian? You seem troubled,” the Inquisitor commented after several minutes of silence.
“I - am fine, Inquisitor,” Dorian insisted, clearing his throat as he dragged his gaze away from the pair of bar stools. When he glanced at the Inquisitor he saw them raise their eyebrows, saw them purse their lips slightly as they took in the frown he was sure was ruining his insistence that he was ‘fine.’
After their food was set in front of them by the barmaid the Inquisitor sat forward slightly. “I’m glad I ran into you, actually,” they began.
“Oh? Needed my expert advice? Or perhaps wanted to talk about me some more? I do love the latter, you know,” he quipped. The normal nonchalance with which he usually said the words was missing, slightly forced, and again the Inquisitor frowned before they spoke.
“No, I have a favor to ask you,” the Inquisitor finally told him. “It seems the Qunari wish to ally with the Inquisition, and Bull has arranged to meet an agent sent by the Ben-Hassrath in the Storm Coast. I was hoping you would accompany us - seems their offer may involve plans against the Venatori, I thought you might be interested.”
Dorian’s eyebrows rose as high as they could on his forehead as he simply regarded the Inquisitor. “And you trust this offer of assistance from the Qunari?”
“Bull was just as surprised, but seems they’ve decided Corypheus and the Venatori are a bigger threat,” the Inquisitor shrugged. “Will you come with us? I don’t doubt Bull would appreciate your assistance against the Venatori, your insight would be invaluable.”
For a moment he almost considered refusing, not entirely certain he wanted to tag along, to camp so close to the merc so soon. A bit of time, distance to adjust to what he was certain would be an unspoken agreement to never mention - it.
He banished the recollection of scarred, full lips tugging his between them, of the feeling of coarse stubble scratching and marking his flesh with its passing, and instead thought of duty. The reason he was here, with the Inquisition, the last place anyone expected or wanted him.
Taking a deep breath he nodded at the Inquisitor. “Of course,” he agreed readily, burying his trepidations behind a winning smirk. “How can I say no to taking down a few more Venatori?”
Preparations began that day, and the beginning of their journey passed uneventfully, the caravan of the Inquisitor’s small group of companions and the Chargers riding alert and ready for danger as they made their way to the Storm Coast. Camp each night was rowdy, Krem opening one of the casks they had brought along so that the Chargers could sit around the fire drinking and swapping stories.
The Inquisitor and Blackwall joined them, but Cole sat slightly apart, seemingly lost in his own world as always. Dorian hesitantly joined the fringe of the group, not feeling like retiring on his own, knowing he’d be unable to sleep with the sound of the booming voice and laugh of the Qunari leader echoing through the clearing. The ale he drank made its way straight through him, and he pushed himself up with a sigh to find a tree behind which to relieve himself before he finally sought out his tent.
“You’ve been awfully quiet,” a deep voice cut in from behind him. “Something on your mind?”
Dorian glanced over his shoulder, cursing his ill-timing, what he assumed to be the other man’s need to relieve himself at the same time. But he saw Bull simply leaning against a tree, a slight frown knitting his brows together.
“Just thinking about how many of my fellow countrymen we’re likely to kill,” Dorian deflected, shaking his head. “After all, you asked me along because we’re facing Venatori, isn’t that right?” He tried to keep the edge out of his voice, but based on the other man’s vague look of surprise he must not have succeeded as well as he thought.
“The Inquisitor asked you to accompany us,” Bull answered slowly. “Said it was a good idea.”
“If it had been up to you I would have been left behind, then?” Dorian mused dryly, trying to fight the sudden ache in his chest.
Cast aside, forgotten - used? Just as before.
“That’s not what I meant,” Bull grunted. “Just that the Boss came up with the plan, not me. It’s likely to be dangerous, I would have -”
But he trailed off suddenly, shifting how his arms were folded across his chest. Dorian finally faced him, eyebrows raised.
“Don’t think I can handle a bit of danger?” he accused.
“No, I just - Qunari coming to this part of Thedas, fighting Venatori - didn’t want them to confuse you for your countrymen, that’s all,” Bull explained.
“Oh, since I am so unlike my fellow countrymen? Is that -” he bit back the words on his tongue, taking a deep breath. “I am a Tevinter. I am proud to be a Tevinter.”
“Wasn’t saying you shouldn’t be,” Bull shrugged. “Other Qunari may not agree, but - I happen to think you’re a damn good Vint.”
“I’m the acceptable sort of Vint, you mean?” Dorian sneered the words, angry that he hadn’t seen it before, the way that he was seen as ‘other.’
“You’re the good sort of Vint - because you care,” Bull answered pointedly. “That’s all that matters.”
His ire fled as he stared at the Qunari merc, something like the rekindling of hope surfacing in his chest as he considered his words. Still Bull stared at him as if it was obvious, but then he sighed and pushed off the tree to close the distance between them.
“Listen, about -” he began when he stopped before Dorian, but he cut off his sentence as Dorian shook his head.
“It’s fine,” he interjected. There didn’t need to be more explanations, no more forced assurances now. “What happened happened, as these things do. I understood it couldn’t be something more.”
“It - couldn’t?” Bull repeated, his voice low. But then he nodded and seemed to take a deep breath. “Right. Just - wanted to - make sure that was…” He trailed off, staring at Dorian before he looked away.
A confusing reaction, hesitancy again evident in the way the Iron Bull was standing, the way he was avoiding Dorian’s gaze. After a moment he gave a noncommittal grunt and nodded.
“Back on the road tomorrow, should get some sleep,” he muttered, and with that he walked away.
Dorian stood staring at the large, retreating figure, at a loss for the other man’s reaction. Yet he didn’t want to care, he didn’t want to worry why the other man had acted the way he had. Putting it behind him had to be his main priority, the disappointing reality of his life. A friendship possibly over, just because of one night. It wasn’t the first time, but it didn’t make the ache lessen at all to know he had dealt with the pain before.
“He felt it too,” a voice said from behind him, and he jumped and spun to face the interloper.
Cole was standing near, wringing his hands and fidgeting his fingers before himself slightly.
“What are you on about?” Dorian asked, raising an eyebrow. “That’s not incredibly descriptive, you know.”
“The pain, the ache,” Cole answered, his monotone catching on the words. “‘Whisper of yes, don’t stop, I don’t want you to stop. Fingers tracing my scars as they hold me to him. I’m older, weary, missing an eye and chunks of myself, but he’s kissing me as if he doesn’t see any of that. Perhaps he sees me , perhaps he doesn’t care. How could that be, younger, whole as he is? How could he possibly look at me this way?’”
“I - are you doing that spirit thing again where you tell me his thoughts?” He forced a laugh after he said it, trying to quiet his heart. If that was true - then the hesitancy had come from pain, not the awkward trepidation that he needed to make certain they were on the same page? Had he misunderstood his words, cut him off before he could explain?
“You won’t allow yourself more, you’ve never been able to,” Cole said. “Just dalliances, unable to hope for more. So you push first, build walls made of laughter to protect yourself, don’t allow anyone close. Stolen moments that only break your heart until you build walls higher. You want to let him in, want to break the walls instead of your heart. You want him to be more.”
“I -” Dorian stared at the spirit, then swallowed hard. “That’s ridiculous. I don’t need anyone but myself -”
“You’re wrong,” Cole interrupted softly. “You both do - you both want more than yourself. ‘A scarred merc, a Qunari, someone he should hate - but he smiles at me, curled in my arms as if he felt safe. Happy. I’m happy here, holding him like this. But now the feeling’s gone, he’s guarded again, and I don’t know how to make him see. He says it couldn’t be something more - I suppose he’s right. He doesn’t want more - I guess I misread the look in his eyes.’”
The aching pain in Dorian’s chest only increased as he watched the spirit abruptly turn and wander away, thin, spider-like fingers trailing on a tree trunk as he passed it. Mind racing, stomach twisting into knots, he stood in the clearing for longer than he knew trying to think over every bit of knowledge the spirit had imparted to him.
And where before he had fought it, now he let hope take root in his chest - if only he could manage to undo the misunderstandings wedged between them.
Camp that night was quiet, almost oppressively silent after the nights leading up to their arrival at the Storm Coast. No cask was opened, no stories or jokes swapped around the campfire, instead subdued whispers permeated the stillness of the forest clearing.
And the Iron Bull was nowhere in sight.
The Inquisitor sat staring into the fire, frowning to themself as they contemplated the flames in silence. Dorian considered speaking with them, but instead found himself looking around the clearing for the large figure, hoping he could seek him out for a moment or two alone.
He needed to know, needed to be told that he was going to be all right.
That things could only get better.
He pushed himself off the ground and brushed off his breeches, intending to search the trees for the Qunari, for the mercenary - for his friend.
When he found him he was leaning back against a tree, his arms folded across his chest as he stared up at the moons above the treetops. He barely granted Dorian a glance before he grumbled to himself and shifted where he stood.
Undaunted, Dorian walked closer, intending to inspect his face, to peer up and determine if he was all right.
It had perhaps been one of the worst days of the mercenary’s life, and he found himself hoping he had the words to comfort the other man.
His - something more?
“I’d say today went well, wouldn’t you?” he began, trying to sound cheerful. Trying to sound reassuring and hopeful.
“I’m sure you would,” Bull mused slowly. “Another Qunari Dreadnought down, another threat to the Imperium removed -”
“I - that isn’t what I meant, you lummox,” Dorian interrupted with a deep sigh. Of course that was what he thought, of course that was his first instinct. But he meant it, he agreed with the decision, thought that it had been right just based on simple principles and morals. He hoped desperately that the merc could see it as well.
“Isn’t it? You mean to say you’re not happy to see that war vessel destroyed?” Bull accused.
“There were men on that ship,” Dorian replied quietly. “No, I’m not happy they’re dead. You made a tough call - but it was the right call.”
“Was it? I’m - now I’m -” Bull swallowed hard and shifted again where he stood.
“You know who you are, you don’t let anyone else define that for you, don’t allow anyone else to dictate your terms,” Dorian said suddenly, his voice firm and unwavering. He was echoing the words, the ones Bull had given him, unsolicited, after the meeting in the tavern in Redcliffe. One of the first times he’d sat beside him in the evening, yet he’d been so wonderfully, surprisingly supportive.
It was his turn, now. It wasn’t that he owed him - he simply wanted to make certain he knew, that he understood that he wasn’t alone, that this decision didn’t leave him thoroughly bereft.
“My whole life - it’s all been decided by the Qun,” Bull murmured. “Without it, who - what am I? Tal-Vashoth , they’ll call me. Is that me, deranged, mad and unable to live in a civilized world? Without order, without -”
“This changes very little,” Dorian interjected. “After all, how much does this actually affect? You’ve been here in the South for how long? One could argue you stopped living strictly by the Qun years ago. They’re only just catching on to that fact now.”
“That’s the issue,” Bull grumbled. “What does this say about me, that for years I’ve been - I haven’t been - I’ve been failing my role. Should have known - I’ve been to the Re-educators, I was a fuck up once before. Maybe that never really goes away. Maybe it was always just lingering beneath the surface, who I really am.”
“The very fact that you went to these ‘Re-educators’ at all shows that you were still doing your best,” Dorian assured him. “But now - casting you aside over this ? You have to see - surely you see that it’s ridiculous, that in the end you chose the right path.”
“If all of Thedas falls, if the Qunari fall because of my decision - was it still the right one? Or will I be known as the Ben-Hassrath who royally fucked all of Thedas?” Bull mused wryly.
Dorian stepped closer until he was standing before the other man, peering up into the single grey-green eye that sparkled in the moonlight from the twin moons. Vulnerability he had never seen was shining at him in the depths of the other man’s gaze, and he marveled at the intimacy and trust laid bare on his face.
“That won’t happen, and you know it,” Dorian assured him. “Irrational fear of the unknown speaking, that’s all.”
Bull smirked after a moment, his one eye moving over Dorian’s face as he considered. “You sound familiar with the concept,” he mused.
“Well, I may not have sacrificed my whole culture for a few measly louts - instead I simply sacrificed it for myself,” Dorian told him with a wry smile. “It’s not the end of the world, being a pariah. I can even give you tips, if you like.”
The corner of the Qunari’s mouth tugged up as he stared at Dorian, his eye wandering over him some more before he spoke. “That would mean spending more time together, and I thought - perhaps you - that we were -”
It was left unspoken, lingering in the air between them until Dorian stepped even closer, intent on taking the chance. Intent on making it clear, deciding the risk was worth the outcome. If he was denied now at least he knew, at least he had finally allowed himself and tried.
“I think I could handle that,” Dorian murmured, resting a hand on the side of the Bull’s face. “Unless you’d tire of me?”
“No, I - I think I would appreciate the help, Kadan,” Bull answered softly. “If you’re willing to show me.”
“I could manage that, Amatus,” Dorian replied. He strained on his tiptoes and pressed his mouth lightly to the scarred, full lips of the Qunari. Strong arms wrapped around him, lips crushed against his with more intent and desperation. His breaths disappeared as sighs into the other man’s mouth, his body almost melting in the embrace of the large Qunari.
When they finally pulled apart they simply stared at one another, and then a wide grin broke across the merc’s face. “How did you know? I thought we were past this, that we’d missed our chance.”
“Cole,” Dorian answered simply.
For a moment they held one another’s gaze, and then they began to laugh, deep chuckles reverberating through their chests pressed against the other.
“Should have known,” Bull mused.